Alec Ross knows Trump country well. The former Obama administration staffer hails from the heart of coal country in Charleston, West Virginia. He grew up alongside the very people that President Trump likes to say Washington has left behind.
As with Trump, Ross believes that government needs to do a better job lifting up these “forgotten men and women.” Unlike Trump, Ross believes accomplishing that goal has little to do with sealing off the borders or reviving the coal industry at the expense of the world’s climate. Instead, Ross argues the key to a more inclusive economy depends on a simple promise: ensuring all students have access to a computer science education.
It’s not exactly the kind of lock-her-up-and-build-a-wall red meat Trump offered his supporters on the campaign trail. But Ross, who served as Hillary Clinton’s senior innovation advisor when she was Secretary of State, believes it’s the message that could help him win the race to become the next governor of Maryland in 2018.
“We need a 21st century affirmative action agenda,” says Ross, who announced his candidacy in April. “We need to put our thumb on the scale to ensure equity in industries where we know there will be robust job growth.”
Today, Ross released a proposal to set aside $10 million a year to train a pipeline of computer science teachers for Maryland schools. His initiative would also require all K-12 schools to teach computer science by 2022. He calls that budget a “rounding error” in the state’s existing $6.3 billion education budget. Ross, who started his career as a teacher in West Baltimore, argues this investment in early skills training is the only way to guarantee every kid in the state has a crack at a job in the digital economy.
Job seekers will currently find nearly 20,000 open computing jobs in Maryland alone. These pay an average of about $100,000 a year, twice the state average. That equates to some $2 billion in open salaries. Yet just 40 percent of Maryland’s schools offer computer science courses.
“You can guess where those schools are,” Ross says. Think wealthy zip codes. Ross hopes that exposing all kids to computer science early will not only help them land better jobs but make the industry as a whole more inclusive.
Tech Gets Political
With this tech-centric message, Ross, author of the book Industries of the Future, is riding a wave of political activism that has coursed through the tech industry during Trump’s tenure as president. Speculation has swirled that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is plotting a presidential run. Just this week, reports suggested Sam Altman, who heads up the incubator Y Combinator, may run for governor of California. All of this political foment feels like an industry suddenly reckoning with an awareness that the wealth and opportunity it’s created isn’t evenly distributed across the country. By engaging with the political process, techies seem to hope they can ensure public policies prepare people for the swift pace of technological change the industry is spurring—and ensure those policies don’t stand in the way of those changes.
Compared to these Silicon Valley aspirants, Ross is a relative political insider. Before working at the State Department, he founded a non-profit that advocated for closing the digital divide. In 2008, he helped craft then-candidate Barack Obama’s technology platform. Still, he doesn’t pretend this bid for governor is the fulfillment of some lifelong dream. Ross’s decision to run, he admits, was “purely a bi-product of Trump’s election.”
‘Unlike reading, writing, and arithmetic, most parents can’t teach their kids how to code.’ Alec Ross
“I want the resistance to begin, literally, as you cross under the sign saying, ‘Welcome to Maryland,’” he says. With a Republican White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, Ross believes state houses are the only places where Democrats can push their agenda.
That’s not to say that computer science education is necessarily a partisan issue. In 2015, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas became the first governor to sign legislation requiring computer science in public and charter high schools. Indeed, computer science education ties pretty neatly into President Trump’s promises. “For manufacturing jobs to come back to the US, they’re going to come to the country that has the best robots,” says Hadi Partovi, CEO of Code.org, a group that advocates for computer science education, but doesn’t endorse candidates for office. “We should be the country that has the best robots.”
Ross would take the Arkansas plan even further, requiring computer science courses at all grade levels. He wants the state to invest heavily in teacher training, develop standards and curricula for the classroom, and create a community of businesses and universities that would place students in internships and jobs.
But the first-time candidate still has a long path to walk before he gets to the governor’s house. Current governor Larry Hogan, a Republican in this typically blue state, still enjoys a 65 percent approval rating, though polls show voters are less thrilled about his re-election prospects. It’s also unclear who Ross will eventually face in the primary to become the Democratic candidate in the 2018 contest .
A more pressing question: Will the people of Maryland be energized by what may seem an elitist message? Hillary Clinton proposed a similar plan as a candidate for president, but voters seemed more receptive to then-candidate Trump’s plan to bring back old-school manufacturing jobs.
Which is why experts say it’s critical for Ross to position computer science not just as an onramp to a swanky career as a programmer but as a fundamental part of a child’s education, no different from math or biology. “It should not be presented as an elite way to gain a foothold working in Silicon Valley,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “It’s a basic matter of literacy to be comfortable with and adept at emerging digital technology.”
Ross heartily agrees. “Folks know that computer code is the alphabet that much of the future is going to be written in,” he says. “But unlike reading, writing, and arithmetic, most parents can’t teach their kids how to code.” A plan like his might not help those parents from being left behind in a changing economy. But it could at least ensure their children won’t be.